Industrial Conversion

Repurposing old coal mines can yield both wondrous and sinister results

Retired coal mines are becoming a source of renewal; take German industrial sites, converted to entertainment locales. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the idea of repurposing complicates an already-tense battleground.

In Germany, these sites often amicably double down on the goal of progress, due to being partially destroyed by war. The Ruhr region, for example, which was once home hundreds of coal mines that were carpet bombed during World War II, has been a prime zone of industrial restructuring.

The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and arts hub, offering mine tours and hosting museums and cultural festivals, according to National Geographic. Essen was one of the most heavily bombed cities during World War II—largely due to that same industrial significance. Other outlandish but successful adaptive re-uses include concert venues and botanical gardens.

As for Appalachia, the poster child for the U.S. coal era, similar goals have been initiated, though many are not nearly as far along as in Germany.

A November 2018 report released by the Associated Press outlined ways to help cleanup and repurpose the sites of abandoned coal mines in Appalachia. The report suggested projects that could be undertaken in states such as Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Those states are plagued by abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up. The report, authored cites the example of a facility in Ohio that plans to use acid mine drainage to produce paint pigment. A site in Virginia is slated to become an outdoor adventure resort. A mixed agriculture and renewable energy project has been proposed at a former West Virginia strip mine.

Many of these ideas have struggled to bear fruit. A recent proposal to open a prison on a former Kentucky coal mine site near Roxana was met with opposition from government officials in the eastern part of the state. A state rep believes an addiction treatment center, or solar panel array, would be better usage of the space.

The state of Kentucky has awarded $4,940,000 of Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Pilot Program funding to Letcher County to subsidize the construction of water and sewer infrastructure for USP Letcher. The pilot program is intended to fund development projects on mined lands that serve as part of an economic transition for formerly coal-dependent communities. While USP Letcher is situated on strip-mined land, the project does not include any environmental remediation. And yet another prison in Central Appalachia could hardly be considered part of the just economic transition advocated by community groups and regional coalitions who have supported other AML Pilot projects.

In one of the ultimate ironies—but also perhaps one of the better examples of bridging a stubborn gap—the Kentucky Coal Museum installed solar panels as its primary power source back in April 2017.

Separately, as detailed in a May 12 New York Times article, tech companies have tried to bolster areas of Appalachia, too—with possible ulterior motives, according to those who were promised jobs there.

Coal, in general, is being phased out by states in favor of combating climate change. New York finalized specifics for a strict shutdown of all coal-fired sites in the state by 2020 this past week. The plan will be executed by “strict emissions regulations, according to court documents.

And in Massachusetts, a former coal plant will be repurposed for energy storage, one of the fastest growing sectors of green power. Real estate firm Commercial Development Company and transmission developer Anbaric said Tuesday they plan to build a renewable energy center at Brayton Point Commerce Center in Somerset, Massachusetts. The site is the former home of the Brayton Point Coal Plant, the cooling towers for which were demolished two weeks ago.

The site, which will be called the Anbaric Renewable Energy Center will be home to a 1200-megawatt (MW) high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converter and 400 MWs of battery storage. The companies estimate the investment will top $650 million.

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